The legal status of the Algerian "Arabs", as they are called in L'Étranger, in the 1930s was the result of various laws, decrees and ordonnances that had come into force since the French conquest of Algiers in 1830.
The Ordonnance royale du 24 février 1834 (Royal ordonnace of 24 February 1834) had declared Algeria as annexed to France; as a consequence, the indigenous Muslims and Jews became French subjects, however, without enjoying the rights of French citizenship (Weil: 95). Starting in 1830, the French introduced punishments for Muslims that did not exist in French law, such as the sequestering of property (Weil: 96). By 1874, there was a list of 27 infractions that applied only to native Algerians; this list was further expanded in 1876, 1877 and 1881 and included meetings without permission, leaving the district without a travel permit, refusing to accept French mony and disrespectful acts (Weil: 96; "Le code de l'indigénat ...", 2006; Merle, 2005). There were also collective punishments in the case of setting fire to a forest (Weil: 96). In mixed districts ("communes mixtes"), punishments were applied by the colonial administrator, i.e. by the executive instead of the judiciary branch of government, which constituted a direct violation of French law (Merle, 2005). (In the other communities, the juge de paix or justice of the peace spoke the verdicts. See Weil: 96). The executive branch enjoyed a lot of freedom for its verdicts; in addition, a simple accusation could suffice for a fine or a conviction (Merle, 2005). The following anecdotes illustrates the arbitrariness of punishments: when in 1909, a legislator wanted to propose a law abolishing administrative internment, he was told that it was not possible to propose a law that would repeal a text that did not exist (Thénault, 2012).
The law of 28 June 1881 consolidated a number of legal practices that already existed, such as power of administrators to condemn native Algerians in mixed districts. This is what became known as the Code de l'indigénat (roughly "civil code for the indigenous); it came down to a sort of slavery for indigenous populations ("Le code de l'indigénat ...", 2006). Strictly speaking, the 1881 law was only temporary, i.e. valid for seven years, but the duration of its validity was extended again and again, until well into the 20th century. (It was also gradually adopted in other French colonies. See Funes, 2019).
By 1914, these administrators had pronounced around 20,000 convictions; between 1890 and 1914, around 600,000 days of forced labour had been inflicted by administrators on native Algerians (Thénault 2012). Since more than 100,000 native Algerians served in the French army during the First World War, the French state owed them some sort of compensation. In 1919, 400,000 native Algerians, all men, were exonerated from the application of most of the indigénat penal code and the administrators lost the power to pronounce verdicts by 1927. However, the indigénat legal code did not disappear until the French Committee of National Liberation's ordonnance of 7 March 1944 (Thénault).
Since citizenship determined whether one was subjected to the Code de l'indigénat or not, the access to full French citizenship is relevant to penal code. The sénatus-consulte of 14 July 1865 determined the conditions under which indigenous Muslims (Article 1), Algerian Jews (Article 2) and foreigners (article 3) can become French citizens through a process called "naturalisation" (as if Algerian Muslims and Jews weren't actually French subjects but foreigners). At the time, there were 3 million Muslims, 30,000 Jews and 250,000 foreigners in Algeria. However, on 24 October 1870 (some time after Emperor Napoleon III had been captured in the Franco-Prussian War) the Government of National Defense grants the French nationality to the Algerian Jews (Weil: 97–98; see also the Crémieux Decree). The sénatus-consulte of 1865 remained applicable to Muslims who wanted to acquire French citizenship. Few benefited from it. One reason is that the requirements included respecting the French Code civil and thereby abandoning five Muslim practices that were incompatible with it (for example, polygamy; see Weil: 100). Even a conversion to Catholicism did necessarily help; in fact, the appellate court of Algiers ruled in 1903 that the term "musulman" ("Muslim") was not a purely religious term but essentially an ethnic one, so the indigénat rules still applied to Muslims who had converted to Catholicism (Weil: 101). In addition, the colonial administrators were opposed to the naturalisation of Muslims, as Jules Ferry noted in 1892 and Albin Rozet in 1913 (Weil: 103). Between 1865 and 1915, only 2,396 Algerian Muslims were naturalised (Weil: 104). The law of 4 February 1919 created a new naturalisation procedure; as a result, 1,204 Algerians Muslims were naturalised between 1919 and 1930, which wasn't much of an improvement (Weil: 106).
Was Albert Camus aware of the social and legal inequality of the "Arabs" in Algeria? Evidence from the years before the publication of L'Étranger (1942) shows that he was.
In 1936, the proposed law Blum-Viollette would have granted suffrage to 20.000 Arabs but it met with strong resistance among the Pieds-Noirs and came to nothing. According to Spiquel (2009), Camus had taken the initiative for a "Manifesto by Algerian intellectuals in favour of the proposed law Viollette". (Vircondelet does not mention this manifesto; see pages 206 and 300.)
Between 5 and 15 June 1939, Camus published a series of articles in Alger républicain about the poverty and misery in Kabylia (Vircondelet: 239; Spiquel 2009). Earlier that year, he had also published various articles about the repression against Algerian nationalists and the demands of the Algerian People's Party (Spiquel 2009). Several years later, in May 1945, Camus published another series of six articles about Kabylia and other areas of Algeria, this time for the resistance publication Combat. This was another series in which he expossed the abuses of colonialism (paradoxically perhaps, without demanding the end of French colonialism) (Vircondelet: 295; Spiquel 2009). In 1958, Camus collected political publications about Algeria in the volume * Actuelles. Écrits politiques, tome III : Chroniques algériennes 1939-1958*, published by Gallimard.
El Aziz Kessous, one of Camus's friends, reported an anecdote from 1934 or 1935, according to which a policeman dragged an Algerian to the police station with one end of a rope around the man's legs and the other end tied to the saddle on the policeman's horse. Camus later used this as a source of inspiration for his novella L'Hôte (inluded in L'Exil et le royaume in 1957). (Théâtre, récits, nouvelles, 1967: 2048–2049; Vircondelet: 402–403; in Vircondelet's version, the man was a trade unionist; the anecdote does not say what the Algerian was accused or suspected of.)
Finally, Agnès Spiquel (2012) notes that in L'Étranger Meursault kills an "Arab", whereas in La Mort heureuse, written a few years earlier, Mersault kills a European. She adds,
s’il s’était agi simplement de faire courir au meurtrier le risque de la peine de mort, il aurait été plus plausible que la victime fût un Européen.
if it was simply about making the murderer risk capital punishment, it would have been more plausible if the victim [in L'Étranger] had been a European.
This also suggests that it is easier for a French citizen to get away with murdering an Algerian Muslim than with murdering another Frenchman.
Note: The French-language sources I consulted (see below) don't mention the Vichy regime as making a difference with regard to the Code de l'indigénat. The novel L'Étranger itself does not mention that a war is going on, even though there would have been a perfect opportunity to mention it in the passsage in which Meursault tells us his boss offered him a position in Paris. Either Camus considered the war irrelevant to the novel or he imagened it was set in a period before the war.
- [anonymous]: "Le code de l'indigénat dans l'Algérie coloniale", Histoire coloniale et postcoloniale, 13.02.2006.
- Camus, Albert: Théâtre, récits, nouvelles. Préface par Jean Grenier. Textes établis et annotés par Roger Quilliot. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1967.
- Sénat (Second Empire): Sénatus-consulte du 14 juillet 1865 sur l'état des personnes et la naturalisation en Algérie, Wikisource.
- République française (IIIe République): Loi du 28 juin 1881 qui confère aux administrateurs des communes mixtes en territoire civil la répression, par voie disciplinaire, des infractions spéciales à l'indigénat. Wikisource.
- République française (IIIe République): Loi sur la nationalité du 26 juin 1889, Bulletin des lois de la république française, N° 1247 (on Gallica).
- Funes, Nathalie: "Code de l'indigénat dans les colonies : un siècle de répression*, L'Obs, 21.02.2019.
- Sahia Cherchari, Mohamed: Indigènes et citoyens ou l'impossible universalisation du suffrage, Revue française de droit constitutionnel, 2004/4 (n° 60).
- Marçot, Jean-Louis: "Comment est née l’Algérie française", Histoire coloniale et postcoloniale, 2012.
- Merle, Isabelle: "Un code pour les indigènes", L’Histoire, October 2005; republished on the website Histoire coloniale et postcoloniale.
- Spiquel, Agnès: "Albert Camus et l'Algérie*, Histoire coloniale et postcoloniale, 22.11.2009.
- Spiquel, Agnès: "Albert Camus parle des Arabes", Histoire coloniale et postcoloniale, 2012.
- Spire, Alexis: "Semblables et pourtant différents. La citoyenneté paradoxale des « Français musulmans d'Algérie » en métropole", Genèses, 2003/4 (no53).
- Sprecher, Jean: "Le statut de l’Algérie et de ses habitants", Histoire coloniale et postcoloniale, 2003.
- Surkis, Judith: "Propriété, polygamie et statut personnel en Algérie coloniale, 1830-1873", Revue d’histoire du XIXe siècle, 41 (2001).
- Thénault, Sylvie: "Le régime pénal de l’indigénat dans l’Algérie coloniale". Republished from "Le régime pénal de l'indigénat algérien, au coeur de la discrimination coloniale" on the website of the French senate, 2021.
- Vircondelet, Alain: Albert Camus, fils d'Alger. Fayard / Pluriel, 2013.
The website Histoire coloniale et postcoloniale, which hosts several of the above sources, was created and maintained by a group of French historians.